March 8, 2009 § 1 Comment


(click on pic for a closer look)

(This post was born out of my recent obsession with H. J. C. Grimmelshausen’s novel Simplicissumus (1668). Mike Mitchell translated the book in 1999 & has agreed to have an online conversation about the “Bestseller of the Baroque.”)


Aurelio: I am in the last ten pages of your translation of Grimmelshausen’s Simplicissimus.  You made this book come alive for me & I can’t thank you enough for the great work!  I’ve tried to read the Goodrich translation with little success.  With some research I found your brilliant re-working.

Mike: Thank you very much for your email. I am delighted that you found my translation of Simplicissimus an enjoyable read. That was my aim. It was obviously a page-turner for the 17th-century reader and I wanted to make it at least a fluent read for the present-day reader. I imagine that in 1912 Goodrich would have approached it in a very different way.
I would be happy to try to answer any questions you have — though on the understanding that I am a translator; my academic specialism was in modern German literature, not the 17th century.

Aurelio: I’m very surprised & pleased you responded. I have been combing the web for anyone who would want to talk about Grimmelshausen’s novel Simplicissimus. It’s amazing that I’ve contacted you, given that you have such an intimate relationship to the book, more so than most, as a translator.

I have taken some time to peruse your online resume & can’t help but notice the impressive rage of topics & authors you’ve translated & written about. Of course there is Simplicissimus, but also translations of Goethe, the symbolists Rodenbach & Kubin, a famous Loos essay, modern German literature with a play by Bernhard, the list goes on & on (I’m only listing those I recognize). I’m a fan of the Symbolists & am happy to that you have had a unique involvement with the works, again more so than most. I’ll repeat, I’m honored your willing to share your thoughts with me.

Simplicissimus was published in 1668 (some have it at 1669) & was written by Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen (1621-1676). The novel is set during the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) & in (mostly) war-torn western Germany (then a part of the Holy Roman Empire, 962-1806). I say mostly because (the protagonist) Simplicissimus does travel/adventure through France, Russia, Macao & (at one fantastical point) the deepest oceans.

How did you encounter this novel to translate? Did you have an interest in the book & just took on the project, or was it an assignment? Why Simplicissimus?

Although is classified as historical fiction, it’s said that some of the story is based on the life of Grimmelshausen. What is your take on why, toward the end of the book, Grimmelshausen takes us to the center of the earth with its spiritual & magical happenings? Do you suppose this was a dramatic device to be more entertaining? What do you think? Do you know anything about the frontispiece Griffin (the “phoenix copper”) & its symbolism?

I’ve seen the book titled as: Der Abenteuerliche Simplicissimus Teutsch, d.h. die Beschreibung des Lebens eines seltsamen Vaganten, genannt Melchior Sternfels von Fuchshaim (The Adventurous Simplicissimus Teutsch, i.e. the description of the life of a strange vagabond called Melchior Sternfels Fuchshaim), Der Abenteuerliche Simplicissimus Teutsch, or (as your Dedalus translation) Simplicissimus. What does the Teutsch mean in the title? Is the book in “high-German?” What’s the dialect? Please tell me if I have any of this titling wrong.

Mike: I read Simplicissimus in an abbreviated version while I was a student, but I didn’t study it as part of my degree course, I concentrated on 18th- to 20th-century literature. I was commissioned to translate it by Dedalus. I had already translated a number of novels for them; they had published the 1912 Goodrich translation in their European Classics series (devoted to what they think are ‘unknown’ classics — unknown in Britain, that is) and wanted a better and more modern version. I then went on to translate two of Grimmelshausen’s sequels to Simplicissimus, The Life of Courage, the Notorious Thief, Whore and Vagabond and Tearaway. That these appeared in the two years immediately following Simplicissimus suggest it must have been an immediate popular success. Without wanting to make any comment on its aesthetic quality, I think it is a key work of the 17th century, ranking alongside Don Quixote and Pilgrim’s Progress. Like the latter, it does seem designed to demonstrate the Baroque theme of the vanity of all earthly things — though this is somewhat contradicted by the vigor and obvious relish with which he describes those earthly things.
Simplicissimus is fiction; there is hardly any documentary evidence on Grimmelshausen, but he fought in the Thirty Years War and it seems that he himself went through similar experiences to those which he wrote up, exaggerated, and fictionalized in his hero’s adventures. As I said, I am not an expert in this period and have by now forgotten much of what I read up when I did the translation ten years ago. I think the five books are, at least in part, a matter of aesthetic balance, which you also have in the hero’s life as he comes into the ‘world’, has many adventures as he rises in it, then withdraws from it. (That is why I didn’t include the ‘Continuation’ Grimmelshausen later added, which seems to me external to the aesthetic of the original version.)  Taking him beyond Germany and the War could be an attempt to make him an exemplar of human striving in general.

I did read somewhere that there could be astrological symbolism behind the book, and in the strange beast used on the original frontispiece, but I have forgotten the details. The poem under the woodcut says roughly: “I was born in fire like the phoenix, I flew through the air, I travelled over water, I journeyed on land; in such wanderings I came to know things that often saddened and seldom pleased me and I’ve put it all in this book so that like me the reader may abandon folly and live in peace…” (The final word’s not very clear in my edition). The Cambridge History of German Literature is edited by an expert on the period, Helen Watanabe-O’Kelly, and she has written the first volume; if you can find that it should answer that kind of question.
The title of the original is as you say, except the subtitle is much longer. However, for the English version we decided to stick to the — simple — Simplicissimus.  Grimmelshausen published his books under bizarre pseudonyms (Simplicissimus is by ‘German Schleifheim von Sulsfort’) which are all some sort of anagram of his name; apparently it wasn’t until the 19th century that his authorship was established. Teutsch is just an older form of Deutsch; the book is written in High German, it’s a not a dialect.

Aurelio: As I was researching the book around the web I found a few German sites that discuss the book, in one the book is referred to as the “Bestseller of the Baroque.” No, I don’t speak or read German. Google has a translation option with which text can be translated (roughly). Yes, Mike some of us have that little tool as our only option—Ugh!

Yeah, so the sequels to Simplicissimus speak to its success & popularity, but you wisely choose not to include them in the Dedalus translation. [I later learned that this is a mistake. Mike did translate the sequels, but he did not include the “Continuation” that Grimmelshausen wrote later.] It would be fun to see what Grimmelshausen does after Simplicissimus dies. I’ll see what Amazon has to offer.

The book is usually called a picaresque novel & this implies a connection to the tradition of the picaresque novels of the Spanish Golden Age, as with Cervantes’ Don Quixote (1605). The protagonist is usually of “low-birth” & has to make it through the world by his cleverness, wit, & of-course luck, all told in a humorous & sometimes allegorical way. Simplicissimus is always finding himself in trouble, in ways that seem very contemporaneous. He disguises himself as a woman, he is for a short time a male prostitute of sorts, he’s a smart-ass with a quick tongue, he spends a little time as a (quack) doctor & in the end becomes a hermit. These are not all the “masks” he dons, since he’s also known as “the Huntsman of Soest,” famous for his skill on the battlefield, along with his less than honorable habits of thievery, dishonesty, &c. He’s a fool for a while & he’s always being thrown around warring factions & battles of the Thirty Years War. Although it is a work of fiction, some of the battles & people in the novel are real. I read that this book is a fantastic resource for historians, wanting to feel the texture & “taste” the reality of 17th century Germany. All these characters (& more, & not necessarily in this order) make for a not so “simple” man, with whom we identify & understand as simply human, flaws & all. Mike, please feel free to speak to any omissions or flaws in my summery.

Given all this & with the knowledge that your specialty doesn’t extend to Baroque literature as a whole, can you speculate on why the book isn’t that popular in the U.S. or Great Britain (or is it popular in the U.K)? Is the book well known in Germany, nowadays?

Your translation of the text on/in the frontispiece came as a surprise. I haven’t seen this translated anywhere. Thank you, it’s just right & apropos for the book & my research. I’d love to find an analysis of the illustration, itself. I did look at the Watanabe-O’Kelly book & she’s silent on the Griffin.

As I’ve noted, you’ve translated Kubin (I had no idea he was a writer) & Rodenbach who were both Symbolists, I’m curious to know if you’re familiar with the German Symbolist Max Klinger? He did a few etchings illustrating a few of the early scenes in Simplicissimus, such as Simplicissimus at the grave of the hermit. A couple others are when the hermit teaches Simplicissimus to read & yet another etching is Simplicissimus with a group of “soldiers” in the (Black?) forest. A Gallery in California has some of the prints for sale on-line. I also have a pen & ink drawing I did “after” Klinger’s (I’ll post it on the blog).

Do you know of, or have you seen (&/or touched) a 1st edition of the book? I imagine/fantasize about you using one of these rare books to start the translating, perhaps to merely lay your hand on it, to inspire a closer more spiritual connection to Grimmelshausen & his time. Can you describe the process of translating a work like this? Did you look at the Goodrich translation to compare yours with? The job must be tricky to really get “right.”
Mike: I can’t have expressed myself clearly about the sequels. There are three ‘sequels’ of which I translated — and Dedalus published two —: Courage and Tearaway as separate volumes, as they are in German. (I think the third is more of a compilation of stories of the strange and miraculous and I don’t find it that interesting.) I think they’re good (Brecht used ‘Courage’ as the starting point for his ‘Mother Courage’). They both take a secondary character from ‘Simplicissimus’ and follow his/her life. But Grimmelshausen also wrote a ‘Continuation’ to ‘Simplicissimus’, which takes him on journeys to all sorts of places. I felt that was just written to appeal to the readers’ longing for the exotic and it’s not integrated into the overall structure, as the travel episodes you mentioned in the original volume are — though I’m sure the attraction of the exotic journey was also part of his motivation there too; that is why I left the ‘Continuation’ out of my translation (Goodrich has a few extracts; another version I have ignores it too, I see).
Your summary of the story seems fine to me. Obviously it comes, at least in part, from the picaresque tradition, which came from Spain and perhaps explains why Grimmelshausen included ‘German’ (‘Teutsch’) in the title. For the second edition Dedalus commissioned a cover illustration from one of our sons and he made it by doing pictures of Simplicissimus in all his various guises, but making them look like Tarot cards.
It is almost unknown in Britain. I find that scandalous. When it was first published, I had a phone call from a
BBC radio presenter who later did a program on it. He said, ‘I consider myself a reasonably cultured person and this is the kind of book I ought to at least have heard of’ — exactly the reaction I was hoping for, but unfortunately not very widespread. It is difficult to say why apart from a general disinterest in other European literatures. The exceptions are writers like Tolstoy and Flaubert — but only ‘Madame Bovary‘; perhaps ‘Simplicissimus’ is just too old and not in the tradition of middle/upper class social realism that is so popular over here?? After all, ‘Simplicissimus’ is a ‘good read’ as well as being of interest for other reasons — historical background, as you say, for example. It is well known in Germany, it’s a standard classic, though I don’t know how widely read it is, the German is not that easy for the modern reader, at least not to read quickly.
One of the problems is the old German. Very often I came across words and phrases which seemed to have two possible meanings. Did they have the modern meaning or an earlier, different one?
The Grimms’ massive dictionary occasionally helped. At one point I consulted two earlier translations (done in the early 1960s) in the British Library — in at least 90% of the cases I checked, each came to the opposite conclusion. I then found a more recent translation, which I thought would be more scholarly, but when I looked up my ambiguities, the translator seemed to avoid them in almost every case, by glossing over them, combining them with another clause etc. I even met a fellow Germanist in the library whom I knew to be a specialist in 17th-century literature, so eagerly asked if he could help me. He quickly drew back, saying he was a specialist in the poetry of the period, but had great difficulty understanding prose. It’s a long book, and as I got more and more into it, I developed confidence in my own judgment — though that’s not to say I was correct in every case.

Alfred Kubin was asked by Gustav Meyrink to illustrate his first novel; when Meyrink got stuck, Kubin went ahead and wrote his own fantastic novel, with many illustrations. He also published quite a few autobiographical or semi-autobiographical pieces — with his own illustrations, of course. I do know Klinger, but I didn’t realise he’d done some ‘Simplicissimus’ illustrations. A book I like among previous translations is that by Lesley Macdonald and Hellmuth Weissenborn; I haven’t read the text very closely, to be honest, I bought it for the wood-engraved illustrations by Hellmuth Weissenborn (pub. John Calder 1963). When I translate a book that’s been done before, I generally avoid looking at previous versions. I might be influenced, perhaps unconsciously, by them, but more importantly I think I might feel I couldn’t use the best translation for a word or phrase because it had been used before. I did have Goodrich on my shelves, but hardly ever looked at it. I haven’t got a first edition; I’m afraid — couldn’t afford it, even if I found one!

Aurelio: In my obsession with the book I’ve unearthed (Googled) a forward (by Lynne Taluck for the John Osbourne translation). Surprisingly Taluck writes about the frontispiece, the “Phoenix-copper,” giving it a context within the Baroque era… “Grimmelshausen’s frontispiece displays the characteristic tri-partite structure of the emblem: pictura, inscriptio, and subscriptio, that is, image, motto (usually printed above the image), and subscription (a prose or verse quotation beneath the picture). In choosing this form for the frontispiece, Grimmelshausen selected a symbolic mode ubiquitous in seventeenth-century high culture. As Peter Daly formulates it, ‘emblems are composed of symbolic pictures and words; a meaningful relationship between the two is intended; the manner of communication is connotative rather than denotative.’ The emblem is thus at once representation and interpretation.” She also mentions your translation, and in comparing it to Osborne’s, she dubbed it “domesticated,” to make it accessable, and an enjoyable read. I agree with her that your translation is an enjoyable read, if it were not easy to understand & enjoy, I would’ve passed it by & never experienced this masterpiece. The “domesticated” part is a tough call & I think she’s overlooking your brilliance & hard work with the (already difficult) High German text. Goodrich (Goodrick) is mentioned as well & he’s not let off the hook either. Although his crimes seem real, since he’s known to have ommited whole chapters as being uninteresting, & she cites yet another translator, Wallich who says that: “The cuts have been made in such a way as to preserve the continuity of the story, omitting mainly a highly fantastical journey to the centre of the earth, a certain amount of moralizing, and a peroration near the end which Grimmelshausen lifted bodily [sic.]—with due acknowledgements—from the Spanish divine Guevara.” This peroration of Antonio de Guevara that he dismisses is fascinating & black to me. The intense denunciation of the world left me in pain, I had a difficult time letting it go, stopping it from darkening any optimism. I am also interested in the fact that it’s such a lengthy quotation. I wonder f it was common to do that back then & at a key point in the book, more or less at the end.

Anyway I can’t thank you enough for the beautiful translation of this complicated novel, this piece of history. I also want to let you know how happy I was to hear back from you & that you wanted to answer my questions & then some. You have enhanced my Simplicissimus fixation beyond reading the book, I’ll never forget it. Now I know I must experience your other work on Kubin & Rodenbach, I can’t wait…

Mike:  Yes, and the ‘griffon’ itself is a composite creature made up of different parts, possibly with symbolic significance — e.g. wings, claws, hoof, hand, fish’s tail, horns, donkey’s ears, (almost) human face— and is pointing to images in the book it’s holding which clearly indicate different episodes in Simplicissimus’s life.


I hadn’t come across the Osbourne translation. I object slightly to the term ‘domesticated’ (which to me suggests I did things which I don’t think I did) but I can see what she’s getting at. I believe the novel was the 17th-century equivalent of a page-turner (though with more to it than just an exciting plot) and since I was translating for the general reader, not a scholarly audience, I felt it made sense to translate it in such a way that the modern reader could read it as fluently as the 17th-century one. I did try very hard to avoid anachronistic vocabulary, but I just as definitely avoided pastiche 17th-century language, what I call ‘ye olde tea shoppe’ English, and I included every detail (eg Guevara), even passages where Grimmelshausen shows of his learning; for me, the outstanding (though not only) feature of Simplicissimus is its realism and I think any attempt at ‘olde worlde’ language, which can never be genuine, detracts from that. your response confirms that I succeeded in what I was attempting, though Lyne may disapprove. I might mention that my mother, who kept complaining that I translated much too serious literature — ‘Why can’t you translate something I’d enjoy reading? — read it right through and enjoyed it.

I do admire Walter Wallich as a translator, but I take a different approach. I have a copy of his Courage (mistakenly entitled Mother Courage), originally bought as much as anything for the lift-ground (= scratchboard?) illustrations by Fritz Wegner.

I have to walk a neighbor’s dog and the sun’s shining at the moment — it doesn’t always here.


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§ One Response to simplicissimus

  • Bob Merkin says:

    Hey hi aurelio –

    Forgive delay … a wonderful and badly needed week in the Sun, but blizzard to tropics and back again to blizzard … it’s taken me a few days to get my nervous system running on most of its cylinders again.

    Also forgive me for being a tekno-klutz, but could I hit you up for your e-mail addie? I very much want to talk about me and Simplicissimus, but initially one-on-one in an e-mail. (Because I am a Font of Ignorance about these things and don’t want to embarrass myself in a more public way.)

    Suffice to say for the moment that Simplicissimus is a small part of my ongoing attempt to elevate my relationship with German slightly beyond buying sausages and finding my train.

    But it’s much more than that to me as I read and investigate it and its historical circumstances. Let me bore you with all that by e-mail if I may.

    THANKS for luring me into your very visually beautiful blog, and its very thoughtful ideas.

    Massachusetts USA

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